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The Hebrew Class

            My first fear about taking an online Hebrew conversation class this summer was the half hour Zoom interview and assessment I’d have to get through first. I was afraid I’d be convinced to spend more money than I wanted to spend, because my social anxiety would kick in and get me to agree to terms I wasn’t okay with, just to please the interviewer. But as one of my readers recently pointed out, Duolingo can only take you so far, and I really wanted to overcome my fear of speaking Hebrew (or any of my other foreign languages) out loud. My hope was that pushing my boundaries in this way would help me make progress in my life overall, but I also just wanted to become more fluent in Hebrew; it’s been a life-long dream.

         “I dream of chicken.”

   I was nervous about the interview for days ahead of time, and tried to think of every excuse to skip it, but in the end I forced myself to sit in front of my computer and click the Zoom link.

            First there was an initial greeter, a young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked about my background in Hebrew and where I lived and if it was anywhere near the Five Towns (it depends on what you mean by “near.”) And then he sent me off to a breakout room to meet with a teacher for an assessment. The teacher was another young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked me about my background in Hebrew. I thought I was supposed to answer him in Hebrew, since he was assessing me, but it was a struggle to find the words and he said I could use English to start with. Eventually, though, he started asking me to translate things, and answer questions in Hebrew, and then he had me repeating phrases in rapid fire scripted conversations. When I had trouble hearing him a few times early on we both assumed that the problem was coming from his computer, and he was apologetic and tried everything he could think of to fix the problem. Some things seemed to help for a short period of time, but then the problem would come back, and go away, and come back. We doggedly made it through the whole interview, though, and he told me that I’d be at the third level, out of eight. He told me that I’d be a little advanced at the beginning of the class, but it would be good for me to get a chance to build my confidence, rather than feeling too challenged right away.

I had to remind myself that the levels he was talking about were Israeli levels; being a good Hebrew student in America is not the same as being an Israeli native speaker. But it still hurt my pride.

“Harrumph.”          

  Anyway, then I was sent to the third young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked about my background in Hebrew and then gave me an overview of the program, including the costs and class schedules. When I had trouble hearing him he said that the problem was coming from my side, and it turned out that he was right. I pressed every button I could think of and then unplugged my headphones, just to see if that would change anything, and the problem went away. I’d never had problems with those headphones before, so I hadn’t even thought of them when I was having my assessment with the teacher, but discovering that the problem had been coming from me all along sent me into a shame spiral. That poor guy had worked so hard to fix a problem he had no control over, and it was my fault. I get into shame spirals very easily, and I was already feeling guilty about not being more advanced in Hebrew, and for being uneasy with all of the young male energy, and for just being so uncool. But I was able to keep my head up and when the third young Israeli guy tried to convince me to sign up for a year of classes at a time, saying there would be discounts for each added semester, I was able to politely and firmly say No, I only want to sign up for one class right now. Even so, the cost of the class was more than I’d expected, and I felt guilty for spending so much of my salary from synagogue school learning advanced Hebrew that I wouldn’t really need in order to teach my beginner classes.

And yet, I decided to take the class anyway, because I really really wanted to. There would be two one-and-a-half hour sessions per week, for ten weeks, plus up to four hours a week of more casual conversational zooms for practice. There was also something about What’s App and Facebook, but at a certain point I wasn’t able to take in any more information. It was a relief when the Zoom was over and I could shut off my computer and take a breath, but almost immediately the shame spiral sped up and I went over and over my internal transcript of the conversations and worried that I’d said and done a million things wrong, especially signing up for the class at all.

  “You could have bought more chicken treats, Mommy.”       

   When I got the follow up emails, reiterating all of the information, there was also a video explaining how they used What’s App in their program (which was helpful because I’ve never used What’s App in my life), and even better, the teacher in the video was female. The tidal wave of young male energy on the Zoom had clearly been more overwhelming than I’d realized, because seeing a relatable woman, not my age but not twenty-two either, was an incredible relief.

            Why do I want to do this now? Because teaching synagogue school has been reminding me of how much I loved learning Hebrew growing up, and how much more I want to learn; and because I want to push myself to build my social skills, and my tolerance for being uncomfortable. But there’s also the extra push of the recent situation between Israel and Hamas, and even more so the media and social media reactions to it.

            I’m not an Israeli, and I have no plans to move to Israel, but the existence of a Jewish state has always been important to me. Israel is the only place in the world with a Jewish majority population and where Jewish holidays are celebrated as state holidays. In the United States, Christian holidays are the default holidays for school vacations and days off from work and national celebrations, etc., but in Israel, being Jewish is the default. It’s kind of like being a Trekky and going to a Star Trek convention, and suddenly you’re not a weirdo anymore. Or at least not the only one. Just knowing that a place like Israel exists makes me feel more acceptable for who I am.

            But a lot of the barbs thrown on social media recently have been questioning Israel’s right to exist at all, and have used many old anti-Semitic tropes and even outright support of the Holocaust in their arguments for why the country should be wiped off the map. As a result, anti-Semitic attacks in real life, in America and Europe, have increased, on top of the four years of rising anti-Semitic incidents during the Trump era.

            I can’t fix anti-Semitism. And I can’t fix the problems in Gaza and Israel and the West Bank. But I have had a lot of feelings about all of it, and the answer for me has been to deepen my understanding of Israel and the people who live there. There has been solace in spending time in Jewish spaces and reading articles from many different perspectives, and listening to Israeli music, and remembering my childhood joy when I first learned about the State of Israel.

            So, I’m going to take this very scary online Hebrew conversation class, and try to build my tolerance for things that are uncomfortable: like grammar, and making mistakes in public, and talking to people I disagree with. Because all of my reading and listening and thinking and remembering has left me believing that Israel is strong enough to withstand the criticism, and to correct her mistakes and accept multiple viewpoints in order to find a new way forward. Just like me.

“That sounds exhausting. We’ll just wait here.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

My Online Class

This is how Butterfly feels about school.

This is how Butterfly feels about school.

I spent the whole summer freaking out about the first online class for my masters in social work, as some of you know. I’m a very anxious student. I always worry that I won’t finish my work in time, and rush and rush, until I’ve finished everything by Tuesday, when it’s not due until Sunday. There is a lot of work for my online Human Rights and Social Justice Class: first of all, because it’s a graduate class, and second because it’s all in eight weeks, so each week is like two weeks of a regular semester. I take notes on everything: the chapters from the terrible textbooks, the scholarly articles, the radio programs, and the video lectures. Even when the information is duplicated and quadruplicated, I take notes each time, just in case I missed something.

I hope this will calm down soon and I will start to trust myself a bit with this new school format. I’m kind of enjoying arguing with all of these authors as I read their work – and one of our weekly assignments for class is a reflection journal to “process” what we’ve learned, so I can rant and go off on tangents and have my say and, eventually, the teacher has to read it.

Human Rights and Social Justice as a title for a class sounds daunting. It suggests a seriousness and a comprehensive-thousand-page-thesis vision of learning, but the reality of the class has been more down to earth. The Professor focuses on manageable doses of vocabulary and ideas, rather than expecting the TRUTH to come down from heaven and infuse us with a burning light.

There is an acceptance that these terms are so big as to be almost meaningless, or to carry many meanings within them. We each use these terms, and every term we learn in the jargon of social work, to mean specific things that they may not mean to other people: words like distributive justice, and equal rights, and positionality, and intersectionality, and internalized oppression, and on and on.

Cricket has already let me now her feelings about my watching the video lectures on the computer. She’s used to me reading quietly, or looking at blogs and pictures on line, but for the computer to talk, and for so long, makes her very angry. She had a big bad case of Barking Tourette’s during the longer of the two lectures, and I almost lost my mind.

“What the heck is that?”

“I must bark it to death!”

We have twenty one or twenty two students in our class and I read everything they write, because a lot of my classmates are already working at social service agencies and have valuable experiences to share, and because it’s nice to know someone’s out there reading and thinking about the same things I am. The online format is surprisingly intimate, and thorough, compared to in-person classes, because everyone gets a chance to have their say, and to respond to each comment that interests them. We don’t have to compete for attention, or fit our comments into a limited time period. We have all week to think and write and read at our own pace – and the professor can hear and respond to everyone, with no need to pick only one or two voices to speak for all of us.

Most of the work for the class is reading and then writing responses, but some percentage of the final grade will come from the final exam – a forty question multiple choice test that I will take on my home computer. Their answer to how to make sure we are not cheating is a service called ProctorU, where you sign in and someone sits there and watches you on your web cam, and talks to you, and checks out your environment, and makes sure you have no unacceptable resources. It looks really creepy. I am much more anxious about the process of being proctored online than I am about the final exam itself.

Maybe Butterfly could sit in front of the computer for me. Do you think they'd notice the difference?

Maybe Butterfly could sit in front of the computer for me. Do you think they’d notice the difference?

With my luck, Cricket will take an instant dislike to the proctor talking at us from my computer screen, and will spend the whole test barking, until my head splits open and all of that studiously gathered information spills out all over the floor.

“Cricket is ready.”

Drawing Pictures of Dogs

 

When I was in graduate school for fiction writing, one of my teachers complained that my work was too “heady” and not placed enough in down to earth details. She wanted descriptions of rooms, clothing, weather, anything to make it more believable that these scenes were happening somewhere outside of my loopy brain.

I had a lot of respect for that teacher, so during the summer I signed up for a local adult education class in drawing. I had hopes that I would immediately be able to capture scenes and squeeze depths of emotion from stale memories. I would suddenly understand color and shading, and line and texture, and I could design the clothes I always wanted to wear, and draw complicated murals on my walls.

The adult education art teacher was a little bit ethereal and not quite as down to earth as I’d hoped. Even her white hair seemed to be reaching up to the sky, unwilling to stay tacked down with barrettes. But I bought my supplies anyway: pencils and chalk and paper and erasers. I sat in the classroom and listened to lectures about shading, and perspective, and complementary colors. It was all a struggle, though. I had to push myself to go to class, and push myself to practice at home. My brain resisted each lesson with a ferocity I had not expected.

After six weeks of drawing lessons, it was time to move on to painting. I thought I would be excited, instead I was tense and short tempered when Mom and I went to the art store and scoured the aisles for all of the new items on the syllabus. I was uncomfortable with all of the money I was spending on supplies, but that did not really explain the panic rising up in me.

The night of the next class, Mom had to drive me, because otherwise I would not have been able to even start the car. The bag of art supplies felt like heavy bricks, and the school building cast a shadow like a haunted castle. When I reached the door of the classroom, where I’d safely entered six times before, I could not go in. I could barely even breathe. My body felt like it was filled with poison darts. I raced out of the building to the safety of the car and I couldn’t explain any of it to Mom as she dutifully drove me home. I couldn’t even tolerate keeping the paints – it all had to go back to the store. I never went back to the class.

I spent the rest of the summer working on the revisions for my novel, and deepening and dressing up the interior of the scenes as best I could, but I felt sick, and guilty, for having failed, inexplicably, to finish the adult education class.

I am prone to panic. Usually, if I feel twinges of that whirlwind going off in my head, it’s a sign that something is buried in that particular corner of my brain that needs to be excavated. Over the years I’ve been able to excavate a lot of those corners and draw off the panic, but certain land mines remain potent, and unexplained, no matter how many times I’ve tried to clean them out. And painting is one of those land mines. Maybe it’s just that I’m not talented in this particular area and, being a perfectionist, I hate that. Or maybe there’s something deeper and I’m not ready to see it yet. I don’t know.

I would love to be able to paint a picture of Butterfly’s eyes, and capture her moods more thoroughly than I can manage with a camera. I want to put Cricket down on paper, though she’s unlikely to actually stay there.

Butterfly's eyes speak volumes.

Butterfly’s eyes speak volumes.

Cricket is a blur.

Cricket is a blur.

I spent a lot of time last year just coloring, with pencils, working on a brain coloring book because it made me feel slightly less silly than the Little Mermaid coloring book I really wanted. Maybe what I should really do is print out pictures of Cricket and Butterfly in black and white and try to color them in. Cricket would look great in orange, with a blue Mohawk. And Butterfly could really come to life with a few touches of pink!

My coloring book.

My coloring book.

Cricket!

Cricket!

Butterfly!

Butterfly!

Maybe drawing pictures of the dogs would be a safe place to start.